The Death of George Washington
The Death of George Washington
Cause of Alarm. On 13 December 1799, at the age of sixty-seven, former president George Washington came down with what he thought was an ordinary cold and sore throat. By the next morning he could hardly speak and was unable to swallow a soothing mixture of molasses, vinegar, and butter. Martha called for the doctor, and in the meantime Washington himself asked the plantation overseer to bleed him. This stopped only when Martha protested that he was taking too much blood.
Bleeding. Washington’s insistence on being bled was typical of the time. Most doctors agreed that bleeding would lessen the excitement of the blood vessels, which in turn would reduce pain, induce sleep, and prevent relapses. Bleeding was prescribed for everything from fever to consumption to madness. The fact that Washington was bled by his overseer, in the absence of a doctor, was not unusual. Barbers or “surgeons,” men with little or no formal medical training, were specialists in bleeding. They might use leeches, or would simply cut open a vein in the arm, neck, or foot and drain the blood.
The Physicians. James Craik, the first doctor to arrive at Washington’s bedside, bled him again, and later a third time. Two more physicians, Elisha Dick and Gus-tavus Brown, arrived in the mid afternoon. Each examined the patient. Brown agreed with Craik that Washington suffered from quinsy, a severe form of tonsillitis, and recommended more bleeding. Dick, however, insisted that Washington needed a throat operation and that further bleeding would only make matters worse. “He needs his strength,” Dick said, “bleeding will diminish it.” Perhaps because he was the youngest of the three doctors, Dick’s advice was ignored, and the former president was bled a fourth time.
Additional Treatment . Medical theory of the day recommended that bleeding be administered in conjunction with emetics to produce vomiting and purges such as calomel (mercury). The idea was to debilitate the body to the point where the disease had nothing left on which to work. All of these treatments were administered to the helpless but willing Washington. In the late afternoon, aware that the end was approaching, he examined his will and spoke with his secretary about financial matters at Mount Vernon. Then, according to his doctors, he expressed a wish “that he might be permitted to die without further interruption.”
A Final Wish . As his death approached, Washington appears to have been struck with a fear of being buried alive. He gathered enough strength to ask his personal secretary, “do not let my body be put into the vault in less than three days after I am dead.” When the secretary agreed, Washington replied, “Tis well.” These were probably his last words. On 14 December, as midnight approached, the first president of the United States quietly passed away.
Preventable Tragedy . Had his treatment been less debilitating, it is possible that the normally healthy Washington would have lived through this sickness. Craik later admitted that he should have listened to Dick and maintained that if the physicians had “taken no more blood from him, our good friend might have been alive now,” although it is by no means certain that they could have done anything about his condition. First of all, they were not sure what he suffered from: it may have been a streptococcus infection of the throat, but could have been diphtheria. Even had they diagnosed the illness correctly, they may not have had the instruments to treat him—to examine his larynx, for example. However, it is safe to say that the treatment did nothing to aid his recovery and most likely hastened his death.
James Thomas Flexner, Washington the Indispensable Man (Boston: Little, Brown, 1974).